by Tony Dayoub
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is the second act of the epic he started in Batman Begins (2005). It is now becoming clear that he is not satisfied in simply rehashing the familiar story of The Batman (Christian Bale). Slowly emerging from behind the vigilante's cape is a more ambitious crime saga that is really an examination of the corrupt, made-up city of Gotham. There are nods to other directors that have with equal ambition taken on the dissection of a crime-ridden burg. But Nolan has the advantage that Gotham is fictional, and its tale is represented in the tragedy of the movie's true protagonist, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
The movie picks up shortly after the end of the first film. The Batman has inspired a wave of copycats that hinder more than help in his crusade against Gotham City's criminal elements. Mobsters like The Chechen (Ritchie Coster) and Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) are uniting against this common enemy. Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) of the Gotham police has now formed a Major Crimes Unit staffed by his most trusted cops, some of which may have fallen to the corruption plaguing the town. All of this is just setting the stage for the introduction of two important players. The Joker (Heath Ledger), an element of chaos, is a psychotic who reflects the evil underbelly of Gotham. Harvey Dent, an element of order, is the new District Attorney. Though coming up through the ranks of Internal Affairs investigating some of Gordon's own MCU cops, he is not above bending the law as a means to an end, the salvation of Gotham City. Dent represents Bruce Wayne's best hope for stepping out from behind the mask allowing him to reunite with the love of his life, A.D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Together The Batman, Gordon and Dent form a powerful troika that is Gotham's best chance for vanquishing its criminals. But will the new unknown variable of The Joker disrupt the equation?
That all of these protagonists share the stage serves to spotlight that it is in this chapter that Gotham City emerges as the central character. It had been alluded to earlier, in Batman Begins, when Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) explained that his goal was to bring down the morally compromised Gotham. Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache), Bruce's father, had been at the opposite end of the spectrum, trying to save the city. Both served as metaphorical fathers to The Batman, the outcast with his finger in the dike, trying to keep the flood of evil from overtaking Gotham, but resigned to the fact that his battle may be a perpetual one.
Nolan took great care in the casting of the fictional Gotham. Perhaps it is no coincidence that he chose Chicago, a city whose past is rooted in corruption as well, to double for Gotham. It's geography serves Gotham well, with its elevated trains running high over the dangerous streets. Its prohibition era story of outlaws hijacking the law, as told in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables (1987) is obliquely referenced, when The Batman intimidates Maroni on a rooftop, and the response is laughing skepticism that The Batman would ever kill a criminal and break his moral code. This scene is a quote of De Palma's finale when G-Man Elliot Ness similarly threatens Capone henchman, Frank Nitti.
More explicitly referenced is Michael Mann's Heat (1995), in the film's opening bank heist scene. Loud, violent, and committed in broad daylight, like in the climactic bank heist of the previous film, the nod to that film is made more apparent by the appearance of William Fichtner. Playing a doublecrossing financial mastermind in Heat, here he plays a bank employee literally packing some heat, as a gun-toting bank manager protecting his mob employers' financial interests. And like in this movie, the crime saga Heat is an exploration of the moral decay prevalent at all levels of the law in a city, L.A.
Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is haunting. I won't say much about it here, because it has been talked about plenty. But it does merit all the praise being lavished on it, and it is sad that it is Ledger's final role. The spectre of evil hangs over this Joker like no other one before. While Jack Nicholson's iteration of the role seemed to erase any notion of Cesar Romero in the part, Ledger's take on it reduces Nicholson's performance to a mere postmodern, hipper imitation of Romero's. Because the character bursts forth fully formed, that is with no origin story to tell you how he became The Joker; because Ledger so completely subsumes himself into the part; and because of Ledger's untimely death, there is a spooky dimension to the performance that so disarms the viewer, that the very appearance of the villain in the frame is cause to sit on the edge of one's seat.
The rest of the cast, from Christian Bale to the smallest cameo by Tiny Lister, is equally exemplary, without the added attention brought to their performances by an unfortunate death, as in Ledger's case. But Aaron Eckhart must be singled out for his ferocious, swaggering performance as Harvey Dent.
Dent is the "White Knight" to The Batman's "Dark Knight." He is the local boy, who rose up through the ranks of Gotham's corrupt political system the hard way. Not born to privilege like Wayne, not working outside the law like The Batman, Dent has had to play by the city's rules to withstand its evil influences. Fighting corruption from within, he shows a sardonic tendency to nonetheless be open to it. Bending, though not breaking, the law, he has been able to circumvent the city's decay, and emerges as a heroic option to take up the crusade started by The Batman, bringing it out of the shadows and into the light. So it is all the sadder when The Joker's metaphorical defacing of Gotham leads to the literal defacing of Dent himself.
Taking on the nickname given to him while at Internal Affairs, Two-Face, The Batman and The Joker now serve as the metaphorical fathers to Gotham's twisted new incarnation of fairness. Harvey "Two-Face" Dent now embodies both justice and vengeance, order and chaos. Trusting his two-headed coin - one fine, one scarred - to make all of his decisions, Dent now personifies the only system he's ever considered to be fair, random chance.
At the end of this film, it is on the edge of this two-headed coin that Gotham stands, precariously capable of falling to either side depending on whether The Batman's crusade succeeds or fails. Gotham's story... to be continued?